This post is the final post in a series that has focused on the insights gained from D.A. Carson’s “The Cross and Christian Ministry.” This final post focuses on more implications drawn from his work as he examines I Corinthians and the effect of the Cross on ministry. Carson’s work has challenged me and so I hope that this final blog relays that truth; I do not in anyway hope to portray that I have mastered this in my personal ministry. I do not intend to indicate that I know how to best implement or lead this kind of ministry, the areas I address instead I have drawn from Carson’s work and the example of men godlier, wiser, and more mature than I am. This post is a challenge to me and I hope to the rest of us as well.
The cross will affect our Mission- Carson says Christians should become “all things to all men” without damaging the message of the Gospel; knowing that “there will be times when it is necessary to confront culture” (122). We will be willing to give up “real rights” for a greater cause. A list of things that may need to be given up for the mission could be discussed, but this is more a matter of conscience in individual cases. Nevertheless, this mission is nothing less than the salvation of the world. What a wonderful misson and what a merciful God who allows us to be a part of it! We are compelled by the cross to receive this cosmic battle plan and to strive to be ministers who can serve in any context. This can be done if we die to self and give up our “real rights” for the sake of the perishing. We must ask above all, “How will this course of action contribute to, or hinder, the work of the Gospel?” This question should be attached to everything we do; this is a question that seeks to keep the cross central.
This will also affect whom we minister to, knowing that all different kinds of people eschew the wisdom of this age. The Southern Baptist Convention, traditionally, has been a denomination that is to be condemned in the area of racism. In light of the cross, I hope the future years see a very diverse SBC. The Cross-is color blind, but race is not the only factor. There is no type of person that is out of the reach of the sovereign God who is on mission to redeem some from every tribe. The greatest show of power and wisdom exploded on the scene at Golgotha. In light of this, racism, classism, sexism, social elitism, etc. are strictly condemned in light of the work of cross—the work of the cross is a cross-cultural work.
The cross will affect how and by what means we attempt to build a church and how we “do church”- “Number games” are always the temptation for the gospel minister. The recognition that comes from grand numbers is coveted. However, the measure of the cross means we seek one “well done” and that does not come from the lips of mere men. Christian ministers are servants and God will hold them accountable for how they build and handle the church of the living God. Carson says, “God cares about His Church, and he holds its leaders accountable for how they build it” (75). So the minister must avoid distracting from the gospel, coveting the notoriety of the world or the denomination, heresy, apathy, focusing on peripheral matters as “hills to die on”, superficial conversions, and as Carson puts it, “Entertaining people to death but never fostering the beauty of holiness or the centrality of self-crucifying love” (83). Carson’s note about “entertaining to death” is especially applicable to our current context. Innovations are great, but we must be careful that they do not distract or detract from the gospel (as I hear Danny Akin often say). Carson continues, “(This) will build an assembly of religious people, but it will destroy the church of the Living God” (83-84). In light of the cross, we must not seek to work through our own innovations and plans and in so doing sideline the gospel. David Platt, pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, relayed the idea that it is possible to get to the end of our ministry and realize we have done our gospel work without the Spirit. This is not to say that we do not seek to contextualize and be relevant, but if we do this to the disregard of the Spirit, it is counter-intuitive to the gospel and is to our detriment, shame, and ignorance. Carson gives an example of how we love to be so “smooth” and pretty in our services. He speaks of the transitions of the stage done through the prayer time. The time when we are addressing Lord of the Heavens and Earth, we spend as a stage change. He says rather poignantly, “Has the smoothness of the performance become more important to us then the fear of the Lord?”(38). There is something here for us to chew on and digest for some time. If we build a ministry on personality (no matter how winsome), entertainment, programs, or any number of other things (not in and of themselves evil) then we are not focused on the cross and it is doubtful that real disciples are being made. In light of the work of the cross, we should be fearful and somber of how we play games in church because on the final day we will be held accountable for how we do this.
Finally, it means that we will be humble in how we “do church”. He says, “Is there nothing to be gained from wide exposure to the company of saints in many parts of the world who have expressed their adoration of the Savior with richness of hymnody we can never exhaust, but which we ignore to our detriment” (89). There have been some great things written on contextualization at “Between the Times”, it is something that should be at the forefront of our minds. The NT church did not have pianos or organs, much to the chagrin of many in our more mainline SBC churches. So we all contextualize. We must be careful as younger ministers not to stick our noses up at the tastes of the older, just as they should be careful in avoiding the same prejudice toward us. The way of the cross promotes humility; this will encourage peaceful dialogue about differing agendas, including topics like music styles. Young people need to be careful here of arrogance and older folks need to be careful of obstinacy. Perhaps we should all strive to appreciate a wider variety of worship styles and ways to do ministry.
The cross will affect our pride and it will make us servants willing to suffer -Carson says of the modern Western Evangelical attitude that it is “deeply infected with the virus of Triumphalism, and the resulting illness destroys humility, minimizes grace and offers far too much homage to the money and influence and ‘wisdom’ of our day” (29). Unfortunately, our SBC churches love the idea of triumphalism. We love to say we are the biggest and the baddest. Do not get me wrong–I love the SBC. And I wish to remain a servant in the SBC until death do we part, but we have to be honest here. We have fallen in love too many times with ourselves, our plans, and our programs, instead of with the cross. The cross shames that kind of thinking. Also, our congregations are filled with those that bask in the blessings of the West. Again this in and of itself is no bad thing as this prosperity makes many things for the sake of the kingdom possible. But western prosperity can also so easily ensnare us and cause us sideline the gospel. Carson’s quote helps get to the heart of the matter, “Many of us are well-to-do… with little incentive to live in vibrant anticipation of Christ’s Return. Our desire for the approval of the world often outstrips our desire for Jesus’ ‘well done!’ on the last day” (108). A rabid focus on the cross will help us obliterate that kind of thinking; instead, we will long to hear those words, words from the lips of the one who hung on the cross for us.
A Final Word here: A Cross-Focus will help us create ministries that stand the test of time: Regrettably Southern Baptists have example after example of churches that are built on what amounts to “wood, hay, and stubble” (I Cor. 3). The ministries of many do not stand the test of time. How often do we see churches that seriously decline within one generation of a leader leaving? Instead, the cross should compel us to leave behind ministries that will go on, that will continually transfer the faith from one generation to the next in that location. The cult of personality is too strong in our convention; the light of the cross is too weak. We should seek to build ministries anchored to one personality—Our Lord Jesus Christ! Here are a few thoughts for pastors on what this might look like in our local churches (much of this I also gather from watching godly men who are doing this well, like my pastor Dwayne Milioni):
Carson’s focus on the message of 1 Corinthians delivers wonderful principles for the gospel minister. I hope that the implications I have drawn over the course of this three-post series are faithful to his work. I write this as a challenge to friends and to myself so that we would constantly keep the cross at the center of our ministries. I hope that this also can be a good reminder to the older, godly men in whose footsteps we will follow as future pastors. In that light, may we never allow personalities, personas, and programs to dominate our outlook. Instead, may we see ourselves as servants compelled to live understanding the cross. May this affect our creed and conduct. This may not make us “successful” or popular by world’s standards, but neither were Jesus or the apostles, instead it will make us a people who hope to know nothing “except Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
Again, if you have not read Carson’s “Cross and Christian Ministry” I highly recommend it. It is a short read, but it is full of pertinent information for those of us that aspire to be faithful gospel minist
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